Between the cancellation of Philadelphia’s annual fireworks show, and health officials urging the public to skip the beaches, July Fourth festivities will be dimmer than in years past. And amid global protests against systemic racism, some Black Americans struggle to see what is worth celebrating, given the country’s deep-rooted history of slavery and segregation.
But Philadelphia groups are still trying to celebrate freedom.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, Independence National Historical Park, the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of Revolution, and the Descendants of the Declaration of Independence will co-host the annual tapping of the Liberty Bell.
In light of the coronavirus, this year’s ceremony will be livestreamed globally for the first time, as people around the world are invited to join U.S. naval ships, fire departments, churches, and other institutions in showing their own expression of freedom through tapping a glass, ringing a bell, or banging on a pot or pan.
“In the recent weeks, with the pandemic and rightful indignation of racial and religious inequalities, everyone is in need of demonstrating a positive way to proclaim the rights and freedoms represented by the Liberty Bell,” Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of Revolution president Ben Wolf said in a statement, calling the event “a show of solidarity for everyone’s liberties.”
Fred Stein, executive producer for the Creative Group, a special events planning firm that will oversee the event, said he expects participation to extend far beyond Philadelphia. He added that the livestream will be repeated in coming years.
Amid movements to tear down statues of people with racist histories, Stein emphasized that the Liberty Bell is rooted in anti-slavery, women’s rights, gender equality, and religious freedom. He added, however, that many are unaware of its full history.
The bell was originally just called the “State House Bell,” and was renamed the “Liberty Bell” in the 1830s by an abolitionist group. Following the Civil War, the bell traveled around the country to “help reunite a divided nation” before settling in Philadelphia for good in 1915. It was also used as a symbol of religious freedom and a symbol of suffragists for the right of women to vote.
The in-person tapping will be administered by several descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — donning masks and gloves and maintaining six feet apart — including Lucy Duke Tonacci, a descendant of Richard Henry Lee, and the Rev. W. Douglas Banks, fifth-generation grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Banks said he wanted to speak at the event to acknowledge the complicated nature of his heritage.
“Freedom was not at all a part of our reality on July 4, 1776,” he said. “Even in this time of uprising, with people acknowledging things that they may not have acknowledged before, it gives opportunity to bring clarity to some of those issues and speak to them in a different way.”
He noted that although the bell might not have an overtly racist connection, it still has connotations to race and power, and the dichotomy between those who are free and those who are not.
“I think it is a great representation of what freedom really is in this country,” he said of the bell. “It’s cracked, it’s fragile, everybody cannot handle it, it’s only for a select few. That crack means a whole lot symbolically.”
Banks will be accompanied by his wife and three of his children. “They’re looking forward to it, and we will have our Black Lives Matter shirts on. The statement we’re making will be clear,” he said.
Also in attendance will be 100-year-old Lt. John Edward James Jr., a longtime member of the society who, after being denied his promotion in World War II due to his race, is celebrating his second year as a U.S. Army officer.
James’ daughter, Marion Lane, said her father is excited about the event, “a symbol of what everyone wants — liberty and equality.”